The Yekke Connection

Steven Lowenstein. (Meir Kruter)
Steven Lowenstein. (Meir Kruter)

It was perhaps my most memorable moment of surprise, discovery and delight during a half-century of genealogical research, sparked by a meeting with Steven Lowenstein, the prominent Jewish historian, author and professor who died on May 31st in Los Angeles at the age of 75.

At the time of his death, Dr. Lowenstein was completing a comprehensive demographic history of German Jewry, the ethnic group into which he’d been born.  He is best known among “yekkes” (German Jews) for his 1989 book “Frankfurt on the Hudson:  The German-Jewish Community of Washington Heights”.

In a loving tribute to his late colleague, the eminent Holocaust scholar Rabbi Michael Berenbaum wrote “(Lowenstein)  studied that world and transmitted its ethos and history into English, explaining it brilliantly to an American audience.  The scion of a shattered world, he sought to make it whole.”

It is no simple task to do justice to Lowenstein’s long and distinguished career, which included three decades at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, followed by a more recent position as a social worker on L.A.’s Skid Row; I will leave that to others.

What I’d like to add to the record is a personal anecdote.  It began when I sat down with my Oma (“Grandma”) Jenny in her apartment on 181st Street in Washington Heights in 1976.   My mother and her parents had escaped Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s, as had Steven Lowenstein’s parents, and the family brought many photographs and documents with them.

Oma went to a closet and removed a shoebox filled to the brim with pictures, placing it on the table in front of us, next to a plate of ever-present lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies). As she handed me each one, she told me the names of every relative and something about their lives.  “These are my parents, Baruch and Sara, and these are my grandparents”.

I was pleasantly surprised to see formal photos taken in studios of three of her four grandparents, born in the 1830s.  Then, to my astonishment, she handed me a fading image of an elderly woman in an ornate dress, announcing “And this is my great-grandmother!”.

Her name was Vögel (also Fanni) Sachsendorfer Katzenstein, and she lived from 1809 to 1886. In the 1870s, her son  decided to emigrate to the U.S..  Before his departure, he took her to a studio for the photo, assuming he would never see her again.  More than a century later, Oma Jenny handed that picture to me.

Vögel Sachsendorfer Katzenstein

The next week, I headed to the Leo Baeck Institute, the repository of all things related to German Jews, to find out more.  A 30-year-old, red-headed researcher was assigned to help me; it was Steven Lowenstein.

We began by perusing the names Oma had given me. Almost immediately, Steven looked up, wide-eyed, and said “We’re related!”   Pointing to great-great-great-grandmother Vögel, he explained “My mother is a Sachsendorfer, and there is only one Jewish Sachsendorfer family in all of Germany”.

“Where was your mom from?”, I asked.  “A little town in Bavaria called Ermershausen”, Steven replied.  “Well, then we’re not related”, I said confidently. “My mother and her parents came from the Hesse area, near Frankfurt, which is nowhere near Bavaria”.

“I’m telling you”, Steven insisted, “if her name was Sachsendorfer, we’re related.  Try to check it out”.

That evening, I called Oma and told her this young researcher saw “Sachsendorfer” and said we must be cousins.  “Ach, no”, said Oma.  “Let me tell you, my great-grandmother was not even from our area.  She was a ‘Dienstmädchen’, a servant girl, sent to Hesse to work.  She came from a little town in Bavaria called Ermershausen”.

My jaw dropped; Steven was right. I told him the next day;  he soon found documents confirming that Vögel was the sister of his great-great-grandfather Wolf.  Steven later provided names from four generations preceding Wolf and Vögel, all the way back to my 7X-great-grandfather Meier Ha-Kohen in the 1600s.

We were in touch periodically long after that revelatory incident, and last spoke in 2008 when I interviewed Steven for an article about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show “In The Heights,” which featured the Dominican community that populated Washington Heights alongside the German Jews.

In a moving obituary this week, fellow historian David N. Myers wrote that Steven’s soon-to-be-published final book “…will be a fitting testament to a scholar of immense talent and skill, a Jew of deep knowledge and passion, and a mensch of the most caring kind”.

As for me, I will never forget the serendipitous moment when Steven Lowenstein grafted a new branch onto my family tree, and connected me to our mutual ancestors.  I can even imagine him meeting Wolf and Vögel and Meier Ha-Kohen, and telling them this story.

About the Author
Steve North is a longtime broadcast and print journalist, and a former interviewer for Steven Spielberg's USC Shoah Foundation.
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